I had an interesting question come up the other day from some people who were on their way to Nogales to do some border shopping. They wanted to know how safe it is in Nogales, and it got me thinking of this article that I could write. Being a traveler into and around various parts of Mexico during many points of my life, I would like to give an overview of the current state of safety and security for tourists, and use a few tourist-type cities in Mexico as examples, based largely on my own experience.
Overall View Regarding Tourism in Mexico
Tourism in Mexico is a HUGE economic draw. It is their third largest source of revenue behind oil exports and Mexican citizens working in foreign countries, namely the United States. They are not going to give up tourism without a fight, and they are already suffering as it is due to domestic instability between the cartels and the government fighting both themselves and each other. Mexico in recent years has been fighting a seemingly losing battle to make it seem safe enough for tourists to stop avoiding the country. There are some places that you can go and have a good time and be safe, and there are some places to avoid.
The first tip you need when going into Mexico is BRING YOUR PASSPORT. They changed the free trade regulations several years ago and now you need a passport to get into Mexico. You certainly will need it to get back into the United States
I recall the time a hurricane had come through Cancun and the government spent millions dredging sand from the ocean the hurricane had pulled away so they could place it back on the beaches. This goes to show what level of importance the Mexican government is placing on brining tourists back to that area, and it is not just the government. The citizens and hotel workers of Cancun pitched in their labor and money to replant trees, clean up the area and fix buildings because that is their livelihood in that city. They want the tourists there, certainly. Cancun is still very much a place for Americans to go and enjoy themselves, and security is abundant. However, like every other Mexican city, just use your common sense. Stay in the Cancun hotel zone (where you will want to stay anyway.) Avoid the run-down seedy locations that are largely outside and (rarely) inside the hotel zone. Do not go to ATMs and withdraw a bunch of money late at night. You never know who might be watching you do that. Do not get drunk to the point where you cannot function properly. If you do go out drinking hail a taxicab to bring you back to your hotel. (The taxicabs are literally everywhere in the hotel zone.) Make sure that you know where your group of friends is/will be and try to remain with them. There is safety in numbers. Do not take valuables with you outside the hotel room where you are staying. Cancun is a place where you still can have a good time, and it is good for the local economy to have tourists there, just realize you are in a country that is in a domestic turmoil and act accordingly.
Whatever you do, DO NOT do anything that will put you in jail. The Quintana Roo prison was the worst place I have ever seen. All we did was pass it driving down the highway, and it was still the worst place I have ever seen. I do not care to know what the inside looks like.
Tijuana has improved some due to government crackdowns on cartels. However, I would not suggest going to Tijuana unless there is something you really want to see there. The San Ysidro port of entry north of the city is the single busiest land border crossing in the entire world, which means you will be waiting HOURS just to get in and then back out of Tijuana. (You cannot really walk across the border like you do in Nogales.) The U.S. Customs have said that one of their biggest problems there is prescription drug smuggling, and virtually everyone is searched regardless of who they are. You probably would be safe in Tijuana if you went and stayed in a nice hotel but other than that the roads are poorly marked, it is a very urban city with many big city problems, and it did not strike me as a real nice vacation city. You would be better off staying in the U.S. and going to a beach in San Diego just north of Tijuana. You can avoid paying the Mexican auto insurance that way. That has been my experience there.
Nogales is still famous for its border shops that offer cheap prices for nice decorative items, clothes, jewelry, arts, and so forth. I have a very nice landscape painting that I picked up in Nogales that was painted by a local artist. You can spend a good deal of the day browsing and shopping at any of the stores. You can get a very tasty meal at a local restaurant that features live Mariachi music. The locals are friendly to the tourists and English is widely spoken. Like Cancun, Nogales caters to tourists and requires tourist money to maintain their local economy. There has been a noticeable increase in security due to the general increase in violence across the country. I have heard of people witnessing pickup trucks drive by with their beds full of Mexican federal soldiers armed with heavy machine guns. That should be a reminder of not only the situation in the country but their safety considerations for the tourists. You do not actually have to drive in to Mexico to go shopping in Nogales; you can park in a pay-parking lot on the U.S. side and walk across. That saves you the hassle of traffic, the Mexican auto insurance costs, and you can leave valuables in your car on the U.S. side. You can go to Tubac in Arizona if you are looking for a safer location, but their prices for goods are much higher. DO NOT walk around Nogales at night. Many of the shops are closed and you are asking for trouble. Just spend the day shopping there and be back in the U.S. before nightfall. Do not walk around flashing credit cards or large sums of cash. The local merchants use cash for most transactions and you do not want to give out your credit card number. You risk the card number being stolen if you use it in too many places. Use cash instead, but do not wave it around. I have not heard of anything too negative happening in Nogales as far as requiring tourists to stay away completely. I would say you will be fine going over and shopping for the day.
I do not even know where to start on Juarez. The city as the highest murder rate in Mexico and is a home to many cartel activities. I have never been there personally but all I hear is that you should not go there unless absolutely necessary. The local police are generally corrupt and there is not anything of real tourist value that I can recall hearing of that city. As far as I am concerned people have no business even looking across the border at Juarez.
Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point)
The last time I was in Rocky Point was actually the safest I have ever felt there. The police were out in force and there were regular patrol parades of several police cars going about the city making sure people were safe. Like Cancun, Rocky Point is a big tourist draw. There have been many American investments made in brand new big fancy hotels and condominiums in the area. (The growth of the town has been amazing.) People routinely drive their RVs down from the northern United States and stay in the RV parks for the winter. Many Americans rent or buy property/houses/apartments there and make a vacation home for themselves or to rent out to other visitors. Rocky Point is probably the most Americanized city I have visited in Mexico. The hotels and condominiums are staffed by professional security. Like Nogales, the locals are friendly, English is widely spoken, and there are many shopping opportunities. You can get a bus to Rocky Point but you can easily drive there. The drive is only about 50 miles. Be careful on the drive down as the Mexican towns just south of the Lukeville, Arizona border crossing can have some crazy drivers. Make sure you have a good Mexican insurance policy, which is required for driving in Mexico. (Your regular insurance most likely will not cover international driving.) Again, in Rocky Point, just use your common sense. Do not walk around at night alone, do not drink heavily and not be able to get back to your hotel, do not use your credit card excessively, do not flash cash, do not do anything that will send you to jail, and you will have a great time in Rocky Point.
In conclusion I would say that yes, Mexico is still a nice and safe country to visit, depending on where you plan to go and what you plan to do there. These are just a few example cities that I can give some of my own knowledge to as far as tourist safety. There are other tourist cities such as San Carlos, Mazatlan, and Cabo San Lucas that can be just as safe. Generally, the rule of thumb when travelling to Mexico is to go where the tourists already are. There is no need to go to a random place in central Mexico where there will not be a single tourist and no tourist related activities. Going to a tourist spot like Cancun means the government will have security in place to protect the tourism industry in that area from drug violence. While there, use your common sense. If something does not feel right, do not do it. Keep in mind that you are entering a potential hot zone of drug-related violence when you step across that line. It is not my intention to frighten you out of what could be a nice vacation, but I would be remiss in not presenting the reality of the current situation to you. Check the United States State Department website for any travel warnings that pertain to particular cities you plan to visit and decide for yourself if it is worth it to go. There is a whole world out there with many nice beaches, so do not feel bad if you change your mind about going to Mexico. However, if you do go, have a safe journey and take lots of pictures.